A book deal unravels; a media empire circles the wagons
By SCOTT ROSENBERG
Paulina Borsook was all set to write her book on the selfish underbelly of Silicon Valley. Her thesis: the technology industry has "benefited more and suffered less from the government than any other sector in society," yet nonetheless harbors a deep ideological hostility toward government.
She'd surveyed the territory in an article for Mother Jones magazine, then snagged a book contract with Hardwired, the new book publishing arm of the Wired empire.
Borsook had a love-hate relationship with Wired; she'd published in the magazine early in its life, but had also written critically of the technoculture Wired champions -- both in print, in the anthology "Wired Women" and online, at the Suck Web site.
Then, in late August -- after she had signed her $42,000 contract but before Hardwired had countersigned it -- an interview with her appeared on a Web site called Rewired. In it, she repeated some of her criticisms of Wired but mostly expressed bemused bewilderment over the company's apparent continued enthusiasm for her work.
The next day, she received a bitter e-mail message from Peter Rutten, Hardwired's publisher, complaining that the interview had undermined their relationship. He also set new conditions on the contract; the publisher would only dole out the author's advance in $2000 increments as she turned in chunks of her draft. Borsook -- convinced, as most writers presented with such terms would be, that Hardwired really wished to deep-six the deal -- decided to walk.
Authors and publishers part ways all the time, of course. What's interesting about Borsook's tale is what it suggests about Wired's continuing identity crisis. As Wired Ventures Inc. prepares to relaunch its initial public stock offering -- at a somewhat chastened revised valuation of $250 to $290 million, down from last June's abortive $450 million IPO -- it's clear that the company's empire-building ambitions and its funky libertarian roots are getting into something of a tangle.
Rutten says that he was unequivocal with Borsook from the start: He wanted a book that was critical yet balanced, not "angry or sarcastic." "I thought she had it in her to write a really interesting constructive critique," he says.
Borsook says: "I remember exchanging e-mail with him -- he said you can't be sarcastic. I said, I am sarcastic, but I'm not malicious or vindictive. My stuff has a very strong voice or point of view. I don't hide who I am. If you sign me up, you know what you're gonna get."
Rutten says that the Rewired interview convinced him that Borsook "didn't understand how I wanted to do the book." The terms he proposed were intended to "monitor the production of the book better."
You can read the Rewired piece and decide for yourself. It's tough to try to identify the sections that might be contract-breakers -- except, maybe, for the section where Borsook, after noting Wired publisher Louis Rossetto's apparent good will towards herself, mentions his being "vindictive" to other people or drumming them out as "traitors."
Wired has a long and erratic -- you could almost say manic-depressive -- history of dealing with dissenting voices. It has sometimes embraced self-criticism. It was remarkable enough, when you think about it, that Hardwired was going to publish a book like Borsook's in the first place. Then there was Hotwired media critic Jon Katz's courageous three-part analysis of Wired's adolescent troubles, for instance, which we wrote about last May. Another story: after freelancer Andrew Leonard wrote a satire about Wired's IPO for Salon, the next communication he received from Wired was an offer of stock options -- which the company was giving to many of its longtime contributors. Katz is still writing his column, and Leonard has a new column in HotWired's Packet section.
Wired can clearly take some kinds of criticism the way you'd hope and expect a mature, self-confident media institution would -- particularly one whose house philosophy of libertarianism is founded on the tenet of the free exchange of ideas.
Still, if you talk to the growing ranks of Wired's disaffected contributors, a pattern emerges. First, they will profess their deep admiration for what Wired is and what Rossetto and his partner Jane Metcalfe have achieved in growing it from a tiny start-up to the media icon it has become. Then they will express concern that an arbitrarily and erratically enforced party line of technolibertarianism has begun to make the magazine and its sister ventures less interesting, more predictable and less fun to work for. They talk of stories held or killed after receiving an editorial meeting's deadly judgment of "tired" rather than "wired." They describe a media company that is in "empire-defending mode."
Finally, they will almost shamefacedly request that their comments be off the record, since, you know, who wants to burn their bridges with Wired?
If you talk to Rossetto about these complaints, as we did back when Katz presented his similar critique in Hotwired, he points to a long list of articles Wired has run that question the rosy technology-enhanced future the magazine promotes -- from William Gibson's dark portrait of Singapore to Chip Bayers' comic prediction of the 1997 death of the Web. Indeed, Wired remains a far livelier forum than, say, the dull ad-wrappers churned out by the Ziff-Davis techno-trades.
And yet fear still seems to stalk the Wired land -- fear that the flagship of the digital revolution is off course, and fear that talking too loudly about the problem might get one thrown off board. Paulina Borsook's experience lends both these worries some credence.
Today, Borsook is trying to place her book with another publisher; her story, meanwhile, has become something of a hot potato. The San Francisco Bay Guardian, for instance, planned to run an article from Rewired's David Hudson, who'd first published the Borsook interview; but then a pre-publication draft of the article circulated widely among Wired staff via e-mail, and so far the piece hasn't appeared.
Meanwhile, other tales are bubbling out of the troubled studios of Netizen TV -- a Wired venture with MSNBC that was supposed to air in August, but that has lost two producers, both its correspondents and still has not launched. NBC reportedly nixed the original pilot; Wired says it's taking the time to get the exact show it wants. The show is critical to Wired's IPO -- as a demonstration that Wired is not so much a magazine as a multimedia company.
In Hotwired's Threads forum, Rossetto posted the following explanation: "We are struggling to capture the ideas and energy of the Net community in the television show. We are trying to innovate, as we do with everything we create. We intend to put on the best show we possibly can, and we will not release it until it's ready."
TV shows are hard to create, and for Wired -- which dismissively refers to TV as a "tired," "old" medium -- dancing with "dinosaurs" is bound to be a difficult step to learn. Capturing the flavor of the Net on TV may be a doomed enterprise, but you can't fault Wired for giving it a try.
On the other hand, it's illuminating to look at the questions Wired put into the hands of the show's original hosts, NBC's Lawrence O'Donnell (fired) and Electronic Frontier Foundation counsel Mike Godwin (now a consultant to the show). These were to be asked, verbatim, of the interviewees on the pilot -- futurists like Alvin Toffler, Peter Schwartz and John Perry Barlow.
If Wired has a strict technolibertarian agenda, as its critics are saying, here it is, in outline form:
"We're in the midst of the final presidential campaign of the millennium, the last election of the last unwired generation. Twenty-five years from now, will anybody care who won?"
"After 200 years, is a political system which has given us such a choice of leaders even capable of being reformed?"
"In the global village, isn't it time to separate the nation from the state?"
"Does representative democracy make sense in an era where everyone can participate directly?"
"Mass production, mass communication, mass society, the rise of powerful central governments. Mass customization, networked communication, niche communities -- isn't centralized, command-driven organization obsolete?"
Maybe, as Wired's defenders sometimes charge, the latest criticisms of the company represent sour grapes on the part of people who, for various reasons, are no longer participating in the company's phenomenal success.
Or maybe, ironically, Wired is less a libertarian cultural oasis than a "centralized, command-driven organization," itself.
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